Art and politics
Post #934 • January 9, 2007, 10:22 AM • 36 Comments
CultreGrrl, who deserves commendation for her fruitful foray into artblogging, has been thinking about politics and art lately. On the 7th she noted the press release from the Fogg for a show called "Dissent!," featuring a great range of printed matter that expresses a sentiment of protest. (Expect something from me on this in the next couple of weeks.) Rosenbaum commented:
At a time when commercial careerism seems to be the driving force for so many young artists, a few concerned curators are pointing the way towards a different path.
Yesterday she reported on the upcoming arrival of Botero's "Abu Ghraib" paintings at UCal Berkeley. For anyone unfamiliar, the painter recently applied his corpulent motif to historically faithful renderings of the atrocities committed by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention facility. She noted:
Can it be that U.S. artists [as opposed to Botero, a Colombian expat] are less interested in creating works that are intensely felt but, due to their sensitive subject matter, "not for sale"? Or are they too isolated in their studios to deeply engage in disturbing, politically charged subject matter?
This is a notion that you see off and on in art - that it should do more than merely serve an aesthetic function, that it should get out and engage the world somehow. It implies that art that goes beyond being aesthetically valuable and serves a social purpose has greater force or relevance than art that doesn't. (From my graduate thesis: "Claes Oldenberg said, 'I want to make art that does more than sit on its ass in a museum,'/And I could only agree him...") Actually, only artists whose talents lie in that arena, and mobilize to full effect given a political topic to chew on (Kathe Kollwitz and Ben Shahn come to mind), ought to comment on current events in their work. Everybody else, by doing likewise, is all but guaranteed to make art that falls below the rest of their output. Outrage may demand political expressions from otherwise apolitical artists, but quality hardly ever does.
ArtsJournal recently linked to a Guardian piece in which John Elderfield, after a nod to the Saddam Hussein execution, discussed the events depicted in Manet's Execution of Maximillian. Writers, of course, love looking at art this way. I don't mean that as a criticism. If they adored facts, narratives, and characters less, they might have gone into another medium. Few of them are purely visual creatures. (I suspect something conversely related is going on in my attempts to write fiction - I have trouble getting anything to happen.) Say what you will about the Maximillian, would anyone argue for it as Manet's masterpiece, over Bar at the Folies-Bergeres or the Dejeuner?
Usually someone brings up Picasso's Guernica in regards to this topic. The Guernica is not a trifle, but it has significant shortcomings, and I believe it is widely thought of as Picasso's masterpiece for two reasons only: it's big, and it's ostensibly about a specific bombing by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War (again, the idea that art achieves more by reaching beyond aesthetics into current events). This is not, however, so much a political work as an allegorical one, with Picasso's usual dramatis personae - minotaur, horse, weeping woman. It doesn't evoke Basque Spain, Franco, or the Luftwaffe so much as the archetypal agony of armed conflict. Except for the electric light and the newspaper textures, the scene might as well be out of the Iliad. Picasso, constitutionally pacifist, felt compelled to protest war again with Massacre in Korea, a work that referenced Goya's Third of May even more closely than Manet's Maximillian. It's an awkward, bland mess that makes me wish he would have left this kind of thing to Max Beckmann, although even he had given up such overt references by the '50s.
And yet, over chez Ed_ there was some discussion about art about art, in response to the recent Roberta Smith piece. As I pointed out on that thread, "about" is a vague catchall that causes conversations about what art is about to head towards an entropic state in which art is found to be about everything. Art derives from other art. That's fine; it has to. It could, however, choose to depict content that matters to someone besides an in-crowd obsessed with banalities. Dipping a ladle into the fouled sluice of contemporary art reporting pulls up this paragraph:
In true DIY fashion, the black-and-white prints featured an eccentric mix of crude drawing, witty appropriation, and clever wordplay. Lipkin's reproduction of a Wal-Mart ad he found in Vogue was disarmingly funny, as was artist Michael Paulson's readymade list of the twenty-five things that make people laugh, despite the fact that there's something about a formula for jokes that really robs them of their punch. (Paulson may have put it best when he said "humor is desperate, pathetic, and ... just not funny.")
And really, that's just what I encountered in the top post - it's not some particularly unflattering selection. With entirely too much of this kind of thing in the world, I think it becomes meaningful to ask why so few artists are dealing with the headlines in an effective manner. It's too much to hope for a political masterpiece, and I think that the great majority of practicing artists have no business bothering with the problem. Nevertheless this kind of moral weightlessness justifiably makes one wonder about careerism, isolation, and maybe pandemic immaturity in the contemporary art world. Philip Guston famously remarked about his switch from abstraction to content: "The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man was I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?" What kind of people are we, indeed? The question is well worth asking.
Update: CultureGrrl follows up.